Loretta Chase - The Devil's Delilah

The Devil's Delilah

By

Loretta Chase

Chapter 1

Rain drummed furiously against the sturdy timbers of the Black Cat Inn. Within, its public dining parlour, tap-room, and coffee rooms overflowed with orphans of the storm. From time to time a flash of lightning set the rooms ablaze with glaring light, and the more timid of the company shrank in terror at the deafening cannonade of thunder which instantly followed.

"Filthy night, sir," said Mrs. Tabithy, approaching one of her guests. "There'll be a sight more of them" — she nodded toward the group crowding the main passageway — "unless I miss my guess. If you'd come but a quarter hour later I couldn't have given you a private parlour, not if my life depended on it."

"Very kind of you, I'm sure," said the guest, gazing absently about the room.

His hostess eyed the thick volume in his hands and smiled. His mien was that of a gentleman. The quality and cut of his attire, despite its untidiness, bespoke wealth. He was a good-looking young man — not yet thirty, she would guess — and, judging by both the book and the rather dazed expression of his grey eyes, one of those harmless scholar types. This fellow would offer no trouble at all.

"Just down that passage," she said aloud. "Third door on the left. I'll send Sairey along to you as soon as ever I can — but she has her hands full, as you can see."

The young man only gave a vague nod and wandered off in the direction she indicated.

His hostess had guessed aright. Mr. Jack Lang-don was a quiet, bookish sort, too preoccupied with his own musings to take any note of the service accorded him. At present he was more preoccupied — or muddled, rather — than usual. This was because Mr. Langdon was recently disappointed in love.

Retiring by nature, he was now sorely tempted to betake himself to a monastery. Unfortunately, he had responsibilities. Therefore he was taking himself to the next best refuge, his Uncle Albert's peaceful estate in Yorkshire. His uncle, Viscount Rossing, was a recluse, even more book-minded than the nephew. Jack could spend the entire summer at Rossing Hall without once having to attempt a conversation. Better still, except for servants, he need never see a single female.

Sadly contemplating the particular female who had cast a blighting frost upon his budding hopes, Mr. Langdon lost count of doors and opened the fifth.

The room was exceedingly dim, which was annoying. He could not read comfortably by lightning bolts, frequent as they were. He'd scarcely formulated the thought when the lightning crackled again to reveal, lit like a scene upon the stage, a young woman pressing a pistol against the Earl of Streetham's breast.

Without pausing to reflect further, Mr. Langdon hurled himself at the young woman, knocking her to the floor and the earl against the wall. Lord Streetham's head cracked against the window frame and his lordship slid, unconscious, to the floor.

The young woman remained fully conscious though, and in full possession of the pistol. As Jack grabbed for it, she jammed an elbow into his chest and tried to shove him away. He thrust the elbow away, and went again for the weapon. Her free hand tore into his scalp. He tried to pull away, but she caught hold of his ear and yanked so hard that the pain made his eyes water. While he struggled to pry her fingers loose, she brought up the hand wielding the weapon behind his neck. Just as the pistol's butt was about to slam down on his skull, Jack seized her wrist. He squeezed hard and the weapon dropped to the floor a few inches from her head. He lunged for the pistol, but her nails ripped into his scalp once more, jerking him back.

Mr. Langdon was growing distraught. To have assaulted a woman in the first place was contrary to his nature. Now he seemed to have no choice but to render her unconscious. He knew he could, having been well-trained at Gentleman Jack's, yet the idea of driving his fist into a feminine jaw was appalling.

While he struggled with his sense of propriety, she struggled to better purpose, punctuating her blows with a stream of choked oaths that would have shocked Mr. Langdon to the core had he been able to pay full attention. He, however, had all he could do to keep her down. He prayed she'd tire soon and spare him the shame of having to beat her senseless. But she only writhed, elbowed, scratched, and pummelled with unabated ferocity.

Mr. Langdon's prodigious patience began to fail him. In desperation, he grabbed both her wrists and pinned them to the floor. She cursed vehemently now, but her heaving bosom showed she was finally weakening, though she continued twisting franti-cally beneath him. That is when his concentration began to fail.

The form beneath his was strong and lithe, and he became acutely aware of supple muscles and lush curves. As her writhings abated, a warmth more beckoning than the heat of combat began to steal over him. In a moment it had stolen into his brain, along with a host of other inappropriate sensations, all of which loudly demanded attention.

Mr. Langdon attended and — alarmed at what he found — hastily lifted his weight off her. His adversary promptly thrust her knee against a portion of his anatomy.

Jack gasped and rolled onto the floor, and the young woman scrambled to her feet, grabbed her pistol, and dashed out of the room.

Moments later, as Jack was struggling to rise, he heard a low groan and saw the earl painfully raising his head from the floor. Jack crawled towards him. Blood trickled past Lord Streetham's ear along his jaw line.

"My Lord, you're hurt," said Jack. He fumbled in his coat for his handkerchief.

Lord Streetham pulled himself up to a sitting position, clutching his head. "Damned madwoman," he muttered. "How was I to know she wasn't — what are you doing?" he cried.

"Your head, My Lord-"

"Never mind that. Go find the she-devil. I'll teach her to — well, what are you waiting for?"

From his earliest childhood Jack Langdon had run tame in the earl's house, dealt with on the same terms as his lordship's son, Tony. Jack had played with Tony, studied with Tony and — periodically-been flogged with Tony. When, therefore, Tony's father told Jack to do a thing, Jack did it.

He stumbled to his feet and out of the room.

"Well, Delilah, and now what have you been up to?" said Mr. Desmond as he coolly studied his daughter's disheveled appearance.

Delilah glanced at the pudgy little man who stood, perspiring profusely, beside her papa. "Oh, nothing," she said, airily indifferent to the scene of carnage she'd recently left. "A misunderstanding with one of our fellow guests. Two, actually," she added, half to herself.

"Good heavens, Miss Desmond, it appears to have been a great deal more than that. I hope one of the gentlemen has not behaved uncivilly. A terrible thing, these public inns," said the damp fellow. "You really should not have come unattended. Your maid-"

"My maid has a sick headache, Mr. Atkins, though I have told her repeatedly that only women of the upper classes are permitted the luxury of megrims. I fear she has aspirations above her station." Miss Desmond impatiently thrust her tangled black curls back from her face.

"Mr. Atkins is right, my love. You should not have come."

"Of course I should, Papa. The matter nearly concerns me — as I hope you've explained to Mr. Atkins." She turned to the small man. "I believe Papa has already informed you of his change of plans. Therefore I cannot think why you have travelled all this way on a fruitless errand."

"Oh, Miss Desmond, not fruitless, surely. As I was just explaining to your father — " Mr. Atkins stopped short because at that moment the door flew open.

The woman Jack sought stood with her back to the door, but as he drew on his remaining strength for a second assault, he heard a low, lazy voice say, "Ah, the guest in question, I believe."

Mr. Langdon stopped mid-lunge as his gaze swung towards the voice. There were others in the room. Two others.

One was a small, rather plump, exceedingly agitated creature with a moist, round face. At the moment he was nervously mopping his forehead with his handkerchief.

The other — the voice's owner — was a tall, powerfully built man with a darkly handsome face and riveting green eyes. He stood coolly, almost negligently, surveying the intruder, yet his very negligence was threatening.

It occurred to Mr. Langdon that when and if the Old Harry took human form, this was the form he must take. The man exuded force, danger, and something else Jack couldn't define.

"I beg your pardon for interrupting," said Jack, bracing himself for he knew not what, "but I've been sent to apprehend this woman."

"You apprehended me once already," said she. "This smacks of obstinacy."

"Ah, it
is
the guest," said the satanic-looking fellow. He took a step towards Jack and smiled. The gleam of his white teeth was not comforting. "My dear young man, you must give up your pursuit of my daughter. She objects to being pursued by gen tlemen to whom she has not been introduced. Objects most strongly. She is likely to shoot you."

"I don't doubt it," said Jack. "She just tried to murder the Earl of Streetham."

"Dear heaven!" cried the small man. "Lord Streetham? Oh, Miss Desmond, this will never do!"

"No, it will not," the man who claimed to be her father agreed. "How many times have I told you, Delilah, not to murder earls? Really, my dear, it is a very bad habit. Steel yourself. Overcome it. Mr. Atkins is quite right. Won't do at all." He turned to Jack. "My dear chap, I'm terribly sorry, but this is a fiend we never have done wrestling with. Rest assured that I will speak very firmly to my daugh-ter later. Pray don't trouble yourself further about it. Good-bye."

Though this response was hardly satisfactory, there was something so assured in the man's tones that for one eerie instant, Jack, half convinced he was acting in a comic play, very nearly took his cue. He had even begun to back out of the room when he felt the young woman's gaze upon him. He turned towards her and froze.

In the heat of battle he had become conscious of her lush person. Now he saw that her heavy black hair framed a perfect oval face startlingly white in contrast, smooth and clear as his mother's precious porcelain. Her eyes, the grey-green of a stormy sea, had a slight upward slant. As she watched his baffled face, her generous mouth curved slightly in an enigmatic, maddening smile that made his heart lurch within him. Jack suddenly needed air.

All the same, he could not retreat. This young Circe had attempted the worst of crimes.

"I'm very sorry, sir, but I'm obliged to be troubled," said Jack, attempting similar nonchalance. "I'm afraid this is a matter for the constable."

"Dear God!" Mr. Atkins sank into a chair.

"As you like," said Miss Desmond. "I wish to speak to a constable myself. Perhaps he can explain why your Lord Streetham is permitted to wander about public inns assaulting defenceless young women. He cannot be very successful at it, since he requires accomplices. I shall recommend he find a hobby better suited to his limited skills."

"Assaulted
you
! You were holding a pistol to his heart."

"Ah, now I understand. His lordship is a tall man?" Mr. Desmond enquired.

"Yes, but that-"

"There you have it. She could not hold the pistol to his head. Much too awkward. As you can see, Delilah is scarcely above middle height."

"This is hardly a time for humour," said Jack, much provoked. "Lord Streetham lies bleeding just a few doors away."

"There you are mistaken," said Delilah's father. "He is bleeding slightly, but he is standing right behind you."

Jack whipped around. Sure enough, there was his lordship, leaning weakly against the door frame and pressing a handkerchief to the side of his head.

Mr. Atkins scurried towards the earl. "My Lord, you are hurt. Here, take my handkerchief. Shall I send for a physician? Shall I send for water? Shall I send for brandy?" The man continued babbling as he alternately thrust his handkerchief in the earl's face and mopped his own moist brow.

"Who
is
this person?" the earl demanded. "Why does he wave that filthy rag in my face?" He nodded to Jack. "Remove him, Jack. This is a private matter."

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